The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) dir. David Lean
Starring: Alec Guinness, Sessue Hayakawa, William Holden, James Donald, Jack Hawkins
By Alan Bacchus
I once met a WWII veteran who was imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp not unlike the one depicted in this film. Not surprisingly, his opinion of the realism of this film was bunkum. In Kwai, David Lean and producer Sam Spiegel romanticize prison camp life, dulling down the shear brutality and torture that occurred, but as someone once said, "the truth should never get in the way of a good story" and The Bridge on the River Kwai is one of the greats.
Lean was a master of framing great characters against huge canvasses of war. Such is the case with Kwai and his duelling rivals: Col Saito and Col Nicholson. Saito is the hard-line commandant of a POW camp in Western Thailand charged with building a bridge to complete the Burmese Railway, while Nicholson is the British career officer determined to maintain his dignity and pride, even if it means collaborating with the enemy and thus building a bridge better than the Japanese could to prove his superiority as a soldier and man of honour.
Character depth is heavily weighted towards Nicholson, unfortunately, as, after the first act, Saito gets the short shrift. But it's a magnificent character arc for Nicholson, culminating in blowing up his own bridge, a great cinematic representation of the contradictions of war, not unlike the absurdities in Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket or Renoir's The Grand Illusion.
Lean contrasts Nicholson's British snobbiness with the pragmatism of the American Shears, played by William Holden, who provides the parallel story to the action in the camp. His un-heroic escape from prison and eventual return to regain his pride and dignity links up memorably with the grand finale.
The standard plastic jewel box just wouldn't cut it for a film of this grandeur and prestige. As such, though it's not bursting at the seams with extras, the new Blu-Ray comes in a large, beautifully designed, sturdy box worthy of the greatness of the film inside. Along with the pristine looking high-def image, this "collector's edition" comes with a glossy hardcover book with photos and liner notes to go along with some of the requisite, but unnecessary, "lobby cards."Seriously, does anyone really care about lobby cards?
Though British soldiers in Japanese war camps weren't whistling military marches during their incarceration, in terms of cinematic storytelling, The Bridge on the River Kwai is still a jolly good show.